Defining success in parenting is crucial to knowing where you are going and when you have arrived, particularly for those of us with kids on the autism spectrum. Rather than thinking of success as some elusive aspiration, I’ve learned to break it into smaller definitive steps that can be mastered and measured. Defining the steps and the end point keeps us from getting discouraged when success for parents with kids on the spectrum looks different than it does for others. In some ways, this principle actually becomes redefining success in the face of cultural norms and expectations.

I’ve learned this principle from my husband Jim. He hammers it home as soon as he arrives home from work as an almost stock response to every question or suggestion I run by him. “What if we go to Hawaii after Christmas?” “Should we get a table at IEP Day this year?” “What do you think of this new rug for the kitchen?”

No matter what the topic, his answer is usually another question, “What does success look like?” What he means is, “Spell out for me what you really want to accomplish. Then, and only then will I be able to determine my answer.”

I am surprised how I stutter, hem, and haw in reply. I want to say, “That’s not what I asked you! Don’t change the subject with another question. Just tell me if you like this rug.” However, I’ve come to value the process. Actually articulating what success would look like puts me one step closer to knowing what to do. As I answer him, sometimes the plan changes entirely. Other times, it becomes obvious how to modify, adapt, or abandon the idea for something better and more targeted to really meet the need. In the rug example, defining success forces me to realize whether I am after warm feet or aesthetics. Slippers might be a better solution in the case of the former, a candle in the latter. Knowing what success looks like can change everything.

It reminds me of meeting with my son’s occupational therapist when he was just four. Given Reid’s seemingly insurmountable sensory needs, the OT orchestrated some very messy and wacky activities with blurred boundaries, at least to my mother’s 1950s way of thinking. Drawing with shaving cream and peanut butter on a mat with toddlers in the family room violated her sense of decency. She questioned the therapist on her reasoning. “What is the meaning of this? Shouldn’t we be teaching him to keep food at the table and wash his hands?”

Brenda, the OT, calmly explained, “Well, it depends on what goal we are working on.” She was not teaching manners at that time. She was targeting interaction with peers and fine motor muscle development. In that session, success looked like eye contact with the play partners, and Reid using both pointer fingers. Defining success enabled her to deal with the clean up and see the point of the whole, sticky process. Brenda was masterful at isolating goals and chipping away at them in creative and playful ways. Now that Reid is older, defining goals one at a time might mean that we work on a firm handshake during an interview and not worry about eye contact, or focus on singing into the microphone rather than holding still at a gig. Other times, a teachable moment about character presents itself and supersedes whatever we set out to do. Narrowing down the number of videos to buy at a thrift store might be a lesson on functional math or discernment, depending on the day.

Defining success is more than merely managing expectations, damage control or making the best of a bad situation. It is about optimizing outcomes, opportunities and performance. When we know what success looks like in advance, we can focus our attention on that priority, break big goals into achievable smaller steps, be more attune to specific modifications and recruit the help needed. What’s more, we know when we are done and can celebrate accomplishments. Defining success determines the how and why of what we do and helps us to be satisfied with the results and stay motivated.

Andrea Moriarty is the cofounder of the music therapy nonprofit Banding Together and blogs at Autism Unplugged. Her refreshing, spiritual take on the challenges and triumphs of parenting a child who is differently abled offers affectionate humor and unending hope. This article is an excerpt from her new book, One-Track Mind: 15 Ways to Amplify Your Child’s Special Interest available on Amazon or at www.andreamoriarty.com.